This time of instability and rapid change can feel overwhelming, but it’s a brilliant opportunity for those savvy enough to see the possibilities

Jack pringle bw 2017

Vision, I am told, is the skill of seeing the way forward when nothing is clear. Well, as we come to the denouement of the omnishambles that is Brexit, we could all do with some vision to help us figure out what to do next. 

I’m going to resist speculating about Brexit outcomes this week as between writing this piece and it getting published all sorts of things might happen. Mrs May might have come back from Brussels with a new backstop deal and have gone instantly from zero to hero. MPs might have devised a hitherto unthought-of solution to the dilemma – unlikely. Or we might be crashing towards a no-deal exit with all the fun and games that will follow that. In any case, I doubt any of us will die and it can’t be worse than the three-day week back in 1973.

Also read: The latest Brexit news in construction

Instead, I thought I would muse on how this is both an unstable time and a period of ultra-fast change – in almost all our markets. A strange and unsettling combination, but surely one full of opportunity for the fleet of foot.

I’m going to resist speculating about Brexit outcomes this week as between writing this piece and it getting published all sorts of things might happen

We are going into a world where people want “experiences” more than assets. Indeed assets such as cars and even houses are seen increasingly as burdensome. Better to rent everything as a service and move on with a maxed out enjoyment of life. This works for music, cars, flats, even lease-free office space.

Physical retail space has famously been decimated by the convenience of online vendors. High streets all across the country are boarded up or full of charity shops. Mega, dull department store chains are on their knees, as are out-of-town retail warehouses. Both of these look like good housing or office sites for the future – check out Squire and Partners’ offices in Brixton, successfully repurposing a former department store into the practice’s HQ plus some retail units. 

If ever there was a crisis that represents an opportunity, it’s housing

But bucking the trend in London, Covent Garden is booming and Selfridges had record breaking Christmas sales. What have they got in common? They are great places to go and “be”. Selfridges is the ultimate indoor collection of brilliantly curated brands and Covent Garden is a wonder world where you could just hang out in all day – eating roast chestnuts in between sipping a cappuccino while listening to top opera singers and watching street entertainers, and a bit of window shopping at Paul Smith. It’s all about whether it’s an “experience” or not.

New office design feels like this too. It also plays to the workers’ desire to have choice in their work setting. A great piece of research by workplace data firm Leesman shows that people liked open plan offices a bit less than traditional offices and they liked open plan hotdesking even less than normal open plan. But when alternative workspaces – cafes, breakout areas, quiet sofa areas, etc – were added to the mix, people liked that even more than they used to like traditional offices. Bingo! 

People want variety and choice at work as well as when shopping. What’s not to like? Now the problem is that we are stuck with those millions of square meters of 2.75m-high tin-ceiling-land offices we have built since the 1980s. People want offices with more character. WeWork, the co-working giant, is just finishing its fit out of the Devonshire Square complex in the City, itself a conversion of warehouses originally back in the 1980s. The first thing it did was rip out all the ceilings. 

As WeWork is the biggest leaseholder in London and worth about $45bn (£35bn) from a standing start in 2010, it’s probably worth taking note. So developers, get yourself an architect who can design really interesting spaces as well as getting you planning permission.

And then there is housing. If ever there was a crisis that represents an opportunity, it’s housing. We are short of hundreds of thousands of units, planning permission takes too long and is too risky, there is not enough land coming free, building construction hasn’t changed too much since the Romans and is labour intensive – so costs are high. But, things are changing fast. 

There used to be, in effect, just two tenures private owned and public rented. A very illiquid market. Now we have public rented, well-managed private rental, co-living, Help to Buy, co-ownership and privately owned tenures – market rate or affordable. Much more variety, much more choice. And at last offsite modern methods of construction is making headway. There are more and more offsite factories coming on stream both here in the UK and in Europe. Even some who will build you a “factory in a box” on your site if the demand is big enough, you want to control the production and delivery and you want to give local employment. We just need their designs to be a lot more imaginative, and to respond to the spirit of the times by giving buyers that pleasing “experience” they want. 

So, what an amazing time of change in all markets. Let’s see some vision, please!

Jack Pringle is principal and EMEA regional director at Perkins+Will

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